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Afghanistan: Washington enlists airlines to aid evacuation

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The U.S. Government has ordered six U.S. commercial airlines to provide a total of 18 planes to support the evacuation mission in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced on Sunday.

The planes should not go to Kabul Airport but should be used to transport evacuees from transition destinations, thus freeing up capacity on military planes, which can then be used to transport people to and from Kabul.

The U.S. first airlifts Afghans needing protection to third countries, such as Germany and Qatar, before they can continue to the United States. The Pentagon said on Saturday that U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin “greatly appreciates the support of [the United States’] industrial partners in this important mission.”

The 18 aircraft will be deployed as a “Civil Reserve Air Fleet,” a rarely used programme created almost 70 years ago to provide backup by commercial air carriers in the event of a major national defence emergency. They will be provided by American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Omni Air, Hawaiian Airlines, and United Airlines.

No one knows exactly how many US nationals and Afghan collaborators the U.S. Government plans to evacuate, but President Joe Biden has mentioned the figure of 50,000 to 65,000 persons, including humanitarian workers and their families.

According to Pentagon figures published on Saturday, U.S, forces have airlifted about 17,000 people from Kabul since the evacuation mission began a week ago as soon as the Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August. Other countries such as Belgium, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands have also been evacuating people to safety.

The Taliban takeover prompted Afghans to converge on Kabul airport in the hope of being evacuated. Thousands are massed behind barbed wire in a no-man’s-land between the U.S. forces controlling the airport and the Afghan Special Forces assisting them.

At least 20 people have died at the airport over the past week, according to an estimate on Sunday by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which did not give the circumstances of the deaths. Earlier reports had it that some people had been hit by gunfire. Sky News journalist Stuart Ramsay, who was at the airport on Saturday with a team from the British TV channel, said people had been trampled at the front of the crowd, while TV footage showed soldiers covering three bodies with white sheets. Also on Saturday, the British Defence Ministry said that seven people had died in the crowd at the airport.

In a new development on Saturday, the U.S. army said it was working on alternative itineraries to the airport due to a threat from a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group. The U.S. news channel, CNN, quoted a U.S. Defence Department official as saying there was a “strong possibility” that ISIS might try to stage an attack at the airport.

In the city of Kabul itself, civil servants told French news agency AFP that they had been prevented from returning to work by Taliban fighters on Saturday, which marks the start of the working week in Afghanistan. One state employee said the Taliban fighter guarding the door of his office building told him to look at the TV or listen to the radio to know when work would resume.

An employee of the Foreign Ministry said the Taliban had blocked all roads to the ministry. “One of them told me to wait until a new minister and his directors are appointed,” he told AFP.

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Since the Taliban takeover, government buildings, banks, passport offices, schools and universities have largely remained closed. In the past few days, the rare places to open their doors have been a few private telecoms businesses. Streets have been largely deserted, except for Taliban checkpoints, patrols, and the crowds on the roads to the airports, hoping to flee the country.

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies have indicated that they intend to remain in Afghanistan, according to the German magazine Welt am Sonntag.

The magazine quoted the United Nations as confirming that its humanitarian offices, which employ about 300 internationals and some 3,000 Afghans, would remain in the country. According to the UN Office in Kabul, most of the roughly 150 NGOs active in the country also plan to stay.

According to Welt am Sontag, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that Taliban in many provinces had asked it to continue its work on behalf of Afghanistan’s children. Some 10 million children already need humanitarian aid, UNICEF indicated.

For its part, the World Food Programme said it was able to deliver food supplies to about 80,000 people last week.

The Brussels Times